Hanging in with Weld could benefit Democrats

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- On the face of it, the choice of Gov. William Weld of Massachusetts to be ambassador to Mexico is proving something of an embarrassment for President Clinton.

But in the convoluted world of American politics today, it may not be that simple.

Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has announced he won't even allow hearings on the nomination. He considers fellow Republican Weld to be soft on drugs, which Senator Helms sees as a disqualifying flaw for anyone representing the United States in Mexico.

Under the strange rules of the Senate, that is usually enough to scuttle any nomination.

But Governor Weld, a sometimes quirky politician with a sense of humor, has gone public declaring his confidence that Mr. Clinton will stick with the nomination -- and with his refusal to consider some alternative such as ambassador to India.

By taking that initiative, the Massachusetts Republican has made it impossible for Mr. Clinton to back away quietly. Instead, he is now expected to referee what is essentially a brawl between the moderate and conservative wings of the Republican Party.

Mr. Clinton's history suggests that is a lot to ask.

The result is a special pressure on the White House to stick with the Weld nomination. President Clinton says he intends to do just that. There is the possibility that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright might be able to persuade Mr. Helms. She can argue that law enforcement officials would welcome the choice of Mr. Weld, a former federal prosecutor with a reputation for following a tough line on hard drugs, if not on marijuana -- in short, a good fit in Mexico these days.

But the prospect is for a tough confrontation between the White House and Mr. Helms. And it is here that the political equities change. Even if Mr. Clinton fails to win the nomination, he can emerge as a clear winner.

Democrats in Massachusetts already have reason to be happy about the nomination. Although he lost a Senate campaign to John Kerry last year, Mr. Weld as governor has an approval rating in the 70 percent range and would have been considered essentially invulnerable if he had run for a third term next year

Target group

In a broader sense, the Democrats cannot help but benefit from exacerbating the ideological differences in the Republican Party. If there is a target group for Mr. Clinton in moving toward the center, it would be those moderate Republicans and independents in the suburbs who have far more in common with Bill Weld than with Jesse Helms.

Those are the voters who moved so heavily toward Clinton in both the 1992 and 1996 presidential elections and toward Democratic congressional candidates in more modest numbers last year.

More to the point, they are also the target group for the Democrats in their campaign to gain the 11 seats in the House of Representatives that would allow them to regain control.

None of this suggests that the fate of the Weld nomination is likely to have even a minuscule direct effect on the 1998 campaign.

No one would vote for a Democratic House candidate because he feels more in common with Mr. Weld than Mr. Helms.

But this dustup among Republicans is part of a broader pattern. There is also the struggle over the future of the National Endowment for the Arts. It has been targeted for extinction by the Republican cultural conservatives, but it is not a cause moderate Republicans in the suburban Northeast and Midwest are likely to adopt.

Family values

The most divisive issues for the Republicans are, of course, those that fall into the category the conservatives call "family values" -- most obviously the continuing intraparty warfare over abortion rights. One of the lessons of the 1996 election was that suburban independents and Republicans don't want Pat Robertson deciding their values.

So the president may be in an awkward position on the Weld nomination. But politics isn't always that simple.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 7/25/97

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